The Pragmatics of Commitment

by Kira Boulat (Author)
©2023 Thesis XVIII, 256 Pages
Open Access
Series: Sciences pour la communication, Volume 132


Commitment is connected to central linguistic features, such as modality and evidentiality. It has thus been investigated in many branches of the field. Building upon this heterogeneous literature, this book offers a cognitive pragmatic account of the processes involved in utterance interpretation, crucially when the hearer assesses the level of commitment linked to it. This research illustrates that the relevance-theoretic notion of strength can be used to capture the cognitive effects of commitment markers (as I think that X, I am sure that X, etc.). The author’s model is based on a novel typology as well as predictions which were experimentally tested. The results show that commitment to an utterance is indeed cognitively determined by the strength of the hearer’s corresponding assumptions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • List of Tables and Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • General introduction
  • Part I Commitment: A literature review
  • 1 Enunciation Theory and Linguistic Polyphony
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Enunciation Theory
  • 1.2.1 Enunciation Theory and endorsement
  • 1.3 Linguistic polyphony
  • 1.3.1 Ducrot’s (1984) linguistic polyphony
  • 1.3.2 The ScaPoLine: Linguistic polyphony and responsibility
  • 1.4 Conclusion
  • 2 Speech Act Theory
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Definitions of commitment in Speech Act Theory
  • 2.3 Speech acts and commitment
  • 2.3.1 Commissives
  • 2.3.2 Assertives
  • 2.3.3 Directives
  • 2.4 Illocutionary-force indicators and commitment
  • 2.5 Conclusion
  • 3 Studies on dialogue and argumentation
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Approaches and definitions of commitment
  • 3.2.1 Hamblin
  • 3.2.2 Walton
  • 3.2.3 Beyssade and Marandin
  • 3.2.4 Gunlogson
  • 3.2.5 Malamud and Stephenson
  • 3.2.6 Becker
  • 3.3 Conclusion
  • 4 Relevance Theory
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Relevance Theory
  • 4.2.1 Relevance and cognition
  • 4.2.2 Relevance and communication
  • 4.3 Relevance-theoretic approaches to commitment
  • 4.3.1 Indirect approaches: Assertion
  • 4.3.2 Indirect approaches: Modality and evidentiality
  • Epistemic modality
  • Evidentiality
  • 4.3.3 Direct approaches
  • 4.4 Conclusion
  • 5 Commitment in linguistics: A summary
  • 5.1 Literature on commitment
  • 5.2 Remaining questions
  • 5.3 The need for a unified account of commitment
  • Part II A new take on commitment
  • 6 Modelling commitment
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 A hearer-oriented approach
  • 6.3 Focusing on explicatures: A graded conception
  • 6.4 A relevance-theoretic perspective
  • 6.4.1 Higher-level explicatures
  • 6.4.2 Strength of assumptions
  • 6.5 Epistemic vigilance
  • 6.5.1 Graded mechanisms
  • 6.5.2 Understanding and believing
  • 6.5.3 Epistemic vigilance and the relevance-guided comprehension procedure
  • 6.5.4 Vigilance towards the content
  • 6.5.5 Vigilance towards the source of information
  • 6.5.6 Concluding remarks
  • 6.6 An alternative account of commitment
  • 6.7 A commitment typology
  • 6.8 Conclusion
  • 7 Theoretical predictions of the model
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Linguistic markers of certainty
  • 7.2.1 Plain assertions, epistemic modals and evidential expressions
  • 7.2.2 Experimental literature on linguistic markers of certainty
  • 7.2.3 Prediction
  • 7.3 The source of information’s reliability
  • 7.3.1 Competence and benevolence
  • 7.3.2 Reported speech and the ad verecundiam fallacy
  • 7.3.3 Experimental literature on the source of information’s perceived reliability
  • 7.3.4 Prediction
  • 7.4 The salience of the piece of information
  • 7.4.1 Manifestness, accessibility and salience
  • 7.4.2 The linguistic literature on salience
  • 7.4.3 An alternative definition of salience
  • 7.4.4 Experimental literature on salience
  • 7.4.5 Prediction
  • 7.5 Conclusion
  • Part III Testing a new model of commitment
  • 8 Experimental pragmatics and memory tasks
  • 8.1 Experimental pragmatics
  • 8.2 Literature review on memory tasks
  • 8.2.1 Memory
  • 8.2.2 Remembering and memory tasks
  • 8.2.3 Recall and recognition paradigms: A survey
  • 8.3 Linguistic phenomena affecting recall and recognition
  • 8.4 Conclusion
  • 9 Three experimental studies
  • 9.1 Linguistic markers of certainty
  • 9.1.1 Study 1a
  • 9.1.2 Study 1b
  • 9.2 The source of information
  • 9.2.1 Study 2a
  • 9.2.2 Study 2b
  • 9.2.3 Study 2c
  • 9.3 The salience of the piece of information
  • 9.3.1 Study 3a
  • 9.3.2 Study 3b
  • 9.4 Conclusion
  • 10 General discussion
  • 10.1 Commitment from a pragmatic perspective
  • 10.2 Commitment from a cognitive perspective
  • 10.3 Commitment from an experimental perspective
  • 10.4 Three predictions about commitment
  • 10.5 The results of the three recognition studies
  • 10.6 Conclusion
  • General conclusion
  • References
  • Series index

←xi | xii→ ←xii | xiii→


During the writing of my PhD dissertation, I have called upon the help and advice of many colleagues, friends, and family members. I wish to thank the following people for their kind assistance: to my mother, father and twin sister, I am grateful for your unfailing support. I am grateful to Prof. Didier Maillat for supervising this work, for his availability, for his insightful comments and suggestions and for the great exchanges we have had for the past years. My sincere thanks extend to Prof. Napoleon Katsos, my mentor in Cambridge, for his invaluable comments and suggestions for the empirical side of this research. Many thanks to Dr. Pascal Gygax, who was there from the beginning of this experimental adventure, for his ideas and pieces of advice. I also would like to thank Prof. Louis de Saussure for my very first academic job experience: thank you very much for your trust and for your support. Many thanks to Dr. Steve Oswald for his kind assistance and for sharing ideas. I cannot forget to thank Dimitrios Alionakis for his help with SPSS in Cambridge and my colleague Davis Ozols, who helped me with the statistics and who dedicated time and energy to explain and provide me with all the pieces of information I needed. Last but not least, I am grateful to the Swiss National Science Foundation: one year dedicated to this work was funded by a doc.mobility grant.

Despite my intellectual debt to dear colleagues, friends and family, the responsibility for the present research remains entirely my own.

←xiii | xiv→ ←xiv | xv→

General introduction

This study is about commitment. It is not about the engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action though. Rather, this research is devoted to a less romantic and less-talked-about – yet no less interesting – phenomenon, i.e. the linguistic notion of epistemic commitment. Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote (obviously in a very different context which I willingly ignore here) that commitment was an act, not a word. In this book, I will argue that commitment is about words after all and more specifically about utterances and how they are represented in the speaker’s and in the hearer’s mind.

While it has not been researched directly in modern pragmatic theories, commitment is a key aspect of communication as it touches on general interpretive phenomena which are assumed to impact every single utterance. Broadly speaking (and also somewhat intuitively), commitment reflects the possibilities offered by human languages to endorse an utterance at various degrees – or to dissociate oneself from it. From this conceptual perspective, commitment overlaps with a number of semantic and pragmatic notions like truth, belief, reported speech, modality and evidentiality, among others. As a result, it has been studied quite obliquely through these different lenses.

Commitment has been discussed within linguistic domains such as Enunciation Theory, Linguistic Polyphony, Speech Act Theory, studies on dialogue and argumentation, studies on modality and evidentiality as well as Relevance Theory. Even though commitment is a recurring concept, it has seldom been investigated as a topic in its own right (Dendale and Coltier 2011: 7). Even from a terminological perspective, this pragmatic phenomenon has been variously named: “prise en charge”, “endorsement”, “responsibility” or, more generally, “commitment”.

←xv | xvi→Although different aspects of commitment have already been discussed in modern pragmatics, questions remain as to how it should be accounted for. Indeed, no consensus has been reached yet with respect to its definition. If definitions exist, they generally combine concepts such as truth, source, enunciation, assertion and modality, to name just a few (Coltier et al. 2009: 7). Needless to say that linguists often disagree on several of its definitional points. Therefore, this research is a systematic attempt to fill some of the existing gaps by providing a unified cognitive pragmatic account of commitment phenomena.

The general picture of the notion of commitment is heterogeneous and somewhat incomplete. While it can be safely claimed that its linguistic markers have been identified and accounted for in numerous studies, the cognitive aspect of commitment has received much less attention and is, as a result, less well charted. Recent attempts have used a relevance-theoretic approach to investigate the cognitive underpinnings of commitment phenomena in connection with the calculation of implicatures (de Saussure and Oswald 2008, 2009). However, I wish to question the very cognitive nature of commitment. In this research, I will construe commitment as the output of inferences that metarepresent the relative certainty and reliability of the information conveyed by an utterance, both in the hearer’s and in the speaker’s cognitive environment (i.e. the set of her contextual assumptions). I will also argue that commitment determines how pieces of information are integrated in and retrieved from our cognitive environment.

More specifically, this research will adopt a hearer-oriented, relevance-theoretic perspective (Sperber and Wilson 1995) coupled with studies on epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al. 2010) to elaborate a theoretical model for commitment phenomena. In the last part of this research the predictions and validity of the proposed theoretical model will be evaluated by using a set of experimental techniques borrowed from neighbouring fields such as psycholinguistics.

←xvi | xvii→

Research questions and outline

The main goals of this research are both theoretical and experimental. From a theoretical perspective, this work aims to provide a global picture of commitment in linguistics as well as to argue for a unified pragmatic view of commitment phenomena. Not only does it provide a commitment typology which cuts across both a linguistic and a cognitive notion, it also presents clear definitions and testable predictions. Finally, this research explains and tests how commitment affects the way individuals store and retrieve pieces of information. From an experimental perspective, the validity of this model will be tested by assessing the effect of commitment markers (such as plain assertions, epistemic modals or evidential expressions) on how individuals integrate pieces of information in their cognitive environment.

This book is divided into three main parts: the first one is concerned with a literature review of commitment in modern linguistics where I present an overview of the most prominent proposals; the second puts forward an alternative model of commitment and the third deals with the experimental angle of this research.

Definitions and applications of the notion of commitment will be addressed in the four first chapters, from different theoretical perspectives. Commitment will be surveyed in Enunciation Theory and Linguistic Polyphony (Chapter 1), Speech-Act Theory (Chapter 2), theories of dialogue and argumentation (Chapter 3), and finally, Relevance Theory, within which the domains of modality and evidentiality are also looked at (Chapter 4). As this review will show, a proper and formal study of commitment is still lacking and crucial questions remain unanswered (Chapter 5).

In light of this conclusion, the need for an alternative account of commitment is put forward. In the second part of this research, I present a hearer-oriented pragmatic and cognitively-based approach of commitment, whose aim is to offer a unified and empirically verifiable model of the processes of commitment evaluation and information integration. Chapter 6 offers an alternative relevance-based ←xvii | xviii→perspective on commitment that borrows from studies on epistemic vigilance and relies on the cognitive notion of strength as it is applied to assumptions held within the hearer’s cognitive environment. Such a conception of the notion of strength converges towards more recent relevance-theoretic issues discussed in connection with epistemic vigilance, which postulates the existence of mechanisms believed to filter out misinformation from communicated contents by evaluating it both for its content and for its source of information. The model construes commitment as a graded property of assumptions which is governed by two parameters: certainty, which is about the communicated content, and reliability, which is concerned with the source of information. The main contention of this research is that commitment to an utterance is cognitively determined by the strength of the communicated assumptions. This new definition of commitment crucially hinges on the distinction of four types of processes related to commitment. This typology is based on a double opposition between, on the one hand, speaker and hearer, and, on the other hand, between linguistic marking and mental representations. With such a cognitive and pragmatic model of commitment, I will argue that it is possible to unify the analysis of many different linguistic phenomena that have traditionally been associated with commitment. These theorical claims are then elaborated into three predictions regarding linguistic markers, the hearer’s appraisal of the speaker’s reliability and the salience of the piece of information, i.e. its relative importance to an individual at a given time (Chapter 7).

The third part of this work is devoted to the empirical side of this research. In this final section, I present three recognition studies in which recognition memory is analysed as a function of the certainty, the reliability and the salience of a given piece of information (Chapter 9).

Finally, after the general discussion (Chapter 10), the last chapter offers a brief summary of highlights and conclusions, before presenting a few suggestions for future research.


XVIII, 256
ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2023 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. XIV, 256 pp., 11 fig. b/w, 2 tables.

Biographical notes

Kira Boulat (Author)

Kira Boulat holds a PhD in English linguistics from Fribourg University (Switzerland), which she partly wrote in the experimental laboratory of pragmatics in Cambridge (UK). Her research interests include cognitive and experimental pragmatics, as well as psycholinguistics.


Title: The Pragmatics of Commitment
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